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How to Stay Safe From Tick-Borne Illnesses

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Woman tourist applying mosquito repellent on hand during hike in nature

Summer and fall are a good time to think about how to prevent tick-borne diseases, especially if you spend time in wooded or brushy areas – places where you’re most likely to encounter ticks.

Tick-borne diseases have been on the rise across the United States. Lyme disease is the most common, but close to 20 diseases can be transmitted by ticks.

Cases of a tick-borne disease called babesiosis have risen sharply in the U.S. Northeast and Upper Midwest. The disease, carried by black-legged ticks, is caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells.

Most Bites Not Cause for Alarm

Not all ticks carry disease. “Not every area is a hotbed for ticks. It’s mostly the East Coast states,” says Sean McNeeley, MD, medical director for University Hospitals Urgent Care.

When a patient comes in with a tick bite, treatment with antibiotics isn’t typically necessary unless the patient has symptoms – such as a rash in cases of Lyme disease. Treatment may also be started if a patient was bitten by a type of tick known to carry disease and the patient had prolonged exposure, Dr. McNeeley says.

Some patients seen for tick bites have removed the tick and will bring it to the doctor. Because laboratory testing takes a long time, doctors will commence treatment based on symptoms and likelihood of infection, Dr. McNeeley says.

“If a tick bites you, it has to be the right kind of tick that carries disease and it has to be on your body for an extended period of time,” Dr. McNeeley says. “It has to be feeding on you 12 to 24 hours. If you go out and find a tick on yourself and remove it when you get home, it’s not likely to have transmitted disease.”

Symptoms of tick-borne disease vary widely. Lyme disease symptoms include a bulls-eye rash, fatigue, headache and fever. If untreated, Lyme disease can affect the heart, joints and nervous system. It can take days or weeks for symptoms to appear.

“The period of time for disease symptoms to appear can be up to 30 days. For Lyme disease, it’s three to 30 days. For Rocky Mountain spotted fever, another disease spread by ticks, it’s five to 10 days,” Dr. McNeeley says.

How to Protect Yourself Against Tick Bites

Prevention

  • Avoid areas where ticks live: wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
  • Walk in the center of trails.
  • Take extra precautions in spring, summer and fall when ticks are most active.
  • Use tick repellents registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use against ticks on exposed skin.
  • Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks, and tents, with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin. It remains protective through several washings.
  • Cover up to keep ticks off your body. Wear long pants, long sleeves, and long socks.
  • Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and tuck shirts into pants to keep ticks on the outside of your clothing.

Check for Ticks

  • Remove ticks from your clothes before going indoors.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later.
  • Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing after you come indoors. If the clothes require washing, use hot water.
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to more easily find and wash off any ticks that may be crawling on you.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in their hair.

Removing Ticks

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible. Pull away from your skin with steady, even pressure. (Dr. McNeeley says sliding a credit card underneath the tick also works).
  • Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth-parts easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  • Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape or flushing it down the toilet. Don’t crush a tick with your fingers.
  • Wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water.

Watch for Symptoms

The most common symptoms of tick-related illnesses are:

  • Fever/chills.
  • Headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. The severity and time of onset of these symptoms can depend on the disease and the patient’s personal tolerance level.
  • Rash

Early recognition and treatment of the infection decreases the risk of serious complications.

Related Links

At University Hospitals, we provide care at every level from on-demand care to emergencies - and everything in between. Making the best healthcare decisions for your family starts with knowing where to go. Learn more.

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